Of Willis Reed and playoff dreams: Quinn trying to urge Falcons onward

Matt Ryan had never heard the story of Willis Reed, Game 7 hero. No reason that he should, really, being that it happened nearly 15 years before his birth.

On Wednesday morning, while preparing for a fairly large, regular-season-ending game against Carolina, the quarterback was auditing a class in NBA history. The instructor, as always during these middle-of-game-week sessions on noted competitors, was Dan Quinn.

The Falcons coach reached way back for this week’s lesson, to 1970, when Reed, the New York Knicks center, inspired a championship by overcoming a torn quad muscle (with the aid of a strong pain-killer) and limping onto the floor to start Game 7. He played through the first half on one leg, scored four quick points and was the emotional catalyst the Knicks needed to dispatch the L.A. Lakers.   

“It’s not necessarily about playing through a torn quad or anything like that, but rather the competitiveness, how one guy can have an impact on a team, what people’s commitment to an organization looks like,” Ryan said later, reciting the lessons learned.

The Falcons hardly are performing at top speed, but neither are they exactly limping into Sunday’s home game with the Panthers. Somewhere in between. A win will put the Super Bowl runner-up (the kindest way to put it) back into the playoffs. A loss – assuming Seattle beats Arizona – would bring 2017 to the kind of sudden stop that usually involves an air bag.

If we have learned nothing else about Quinn here near the close of his third season running the Falcons, it’s that a high-stakes weekend such as this will only accentuate those traits that give his method its upbeat, easy-listening, Hallmark-hopeful tone. Times such as this, Quinn is bound to be at his Quinn-iest.

A preacher’s quote the coach has been known to lean on – “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life” – is going to be in play more than ever with the playoffs in the balance.

Pressure? What pressure? “As a coach, when you get in this environment, it’s as much fun as you can imagine. We get to control our own spot. I wouldn’t say more excitement – but, (here re-thinking), yeah, probably a little more excitement. I’m enjoying the build-up,” he said.

Dan Quinn is pumped. The Falcons coach is perpetually pumped. But, currently, he is exceptionally inflated.

Quinn, for instance, has no doubt that the Falcons will clean up the recent little problem Devonta Freeman has had holding onto the ball – three fumbles in the past two games – with just a little more drilling. The problems, the coach said, come when Freeman does not tuck the elbow of his ball-carrying arm tight to his body. “High and tight,” is the phrase that pays this week.      

And with his defense playing at a level above even the Super Bowl season, Quinn looks at a steep offensive drop-off (from nearly 34 points a game in 2016 to 22 now) and remains confident that the pretty pieces will fall into place before a season slides into insignificance.

Last week’s error-prone loss to New Orleans left Quinn, in his words, “caught between a spin cycle of frustration, being (angry) and being motivated.” But come the dawning of a new week, he was turning his usual hopeful face to the next game.

Where you might see a 9-6 team that has failed to make the most of its personnel, Quinn will see one that still at this very late date can climb into the playoffs and set off car alarms once it arrives.

“I’m very confident,” he said, when asked about the Falcons’ playoff readiness.

“For us to go there, we’ve got to own this week,” he said. “I do know all the things that make us unique – playmakers in all three phases, how to feature the guys – and that part of our game is really intact.”      

Even Sunday’s game time was giving him cause for optimism. By his reckoning, the move from 1 p.m. to 4:25 was a big plus for the home team, seeing how it would give the crowd additional time to gain liquid enthusiasm. As the official spokesman for responsible yet mood-altering drinking, Quinn officially declared that this New Year’s Eve would commence at kickoff. 

Above all, better believe that the leader of The Brotherhood is trusting the process (the fundamental catchphrase of a coaching generation) like crazy in these critical days.

Here it is Week 17 of a 16-game season. If this was a pregnancy, it would be going on the fourth trimester. If this was a movie, the hilarious outtakes would be rolling.

In a NFL season, this would be the time that a team’s identity should be pretty well set in stone. The time also when players, now three years into the Quinn regime, have been covered up in his unique blend of coaching charm. How long that remains effective, how much it continues to resonate with flinty pros will be put to the test once more Sunday.  

Interesting days, indeed, for Quinn, transitioning between the coach who elevated the Falcons to the Super Bowl and the one currently trying on the final week to coax some consistency from a rather schizophrenic bunch. (Yes, his offense faced a first-and-40 after three consecutive penalties last week. How, in a rational world, can that happen?)    

One important player seems convinced that his coach’s techniques remain fresh.

“He’s unbelievable with his messaging,” Ryan said. “He’s not afraid to use other sports analogies, other life analogies to keep in mind what’s important for our team and our organization this week. He’s remarkable at keeping the messaging fresh, unique and pertinent to the situation we’re in that week.” 

Said his center, Alex Mack, “Early in the week when you have all this time in front of you, the goal is to motivate us. To get us thinking, ‘OK, what kind of work can we put in to get a little bit better this week?’”

There is precisely one more week to get better. And the alternative methods to reaching that goal has included a heavy dose of NBA action. In addition to the Reed example, Quinn on Thursday employed a highlight from two days earlier when Phoenix defeated Memphis on an inbounds-alley-oop-pass-and-dunk with just six-tenths of a second left.   

Reasoned Quinn: “Their world is different than ours, but we work on a lot of plays out here – some may not come up the whole season – but when it does, you’ve put the work in. So, when that moment comes you’ve covered it, you’re ready.

“That’s how I try to use an analogy from another sport, whether it’s boxing or basketball, fighting – how does that lesson apply to our team at that moment?”

Apparently, he is anticipating a rather close contest Sunday.

There certainly is no reason at this stage to leave any analogy unturned, given that Game No. 16 shapes up as a significant test of the Quinn process, one game that may go far in molding the perception of an entire season. 

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